The government's daunting task in quickly figuring out how to award the $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus money continues to get more daunting.
The National Telecommunications & Information Administration and the Agriculture Department, which are teaming to administer the grants, want to start the process rolling next month. But in a series of hearings in Washington and in the field this week, the complexity of the task has been driven home.
They have to come up with the guidelines for who qualifies to apply for the money, how they must apply, who can review the grants, then who gets the grants. They must also come up with a definition of broadband and of what qualifies as the un-served and underserved areas that the money must go to.
On the issue of what qualifies as broadband, if a Thursday morning hearing in Washington is any indication, it can have as many definitions as there are stakeholders.
In a morning session at NTIA Thursday, a panel was divided over whether there should be a minimum speed set, whether that is the FCC's 200 kilobits per second, or something much higher. The cable industry has argued against setting mandatory speeds, for one reason because it could advantage the telcos.
Some panelists, which included telecom cooperative associations, wireless internet providers, consultants and public interest groups, argued that setting a low minimum speed would be the only way to assure a workable business model, while others said it would "not be visionary" for one, and wouldn't keep up with applications already out there.
An audience member indentifying herself as the Montgomery County cable administrator, pointed out that the economic stimulus package that contains the broadband grant funds says NTIA should consult with the FCC, but also said NTIA should look beyond its 200 Kbps definition of high-speed and come up with its own definition.
She suggested a two-tiered approach, with an "advanced broadband" definition for speeds that would support, say telemedicine, and another for broadband, determined by the minimum advertised broadband commercially available in the state or surrounding areas. Grant proposals would get extra points from the government for the higher "advanced" speeds.
Leroy Watson, legislative director for the National Grange, warned about "smoke jumping" standards into areas that would be unsupportable in surrounding communities.
But the definitional questions are not confined to speeds. Watson said defining broadband should include demonstrating wider community benefits. For example, he said, while there have been industry failures in broadband deployment, there have been government failures as well. On the telemedicine front, he said that 70% of Medicaid goes to nursing homes. If people could be kept in their homes even one more year, it would be a huge savings. He said coming up with a definition will help define the "tele-something" services that will show the value of broadband.
The administration is encouraging potential grantees to think holistically about their grants in terms of things like energy and medicine.
Another audience member, identifying himself as being from the first responder community, said that network reliability, redundancy and security needed to be taken into account.